“I want students to fail in my room all the time. I want them to be unafraid of failure.” This was me, all the time. In conversation with other teachers, on Twitter, in blog posts. Always discussing how students should fail. How our rooms should be filled with opportunities to fail. How we should model failing any chance we got.
I assumed this is what students needed; fearlessness in the face of failure, chances to fail every single day. So much failure that they would never be afraid to conquer it or be stymied by it, but instead saw it as a dragon to slay. And then, one day, I said it out loud to my students. And they looked at me in horror. And then they laughed.
“Why do you want us to fail so much, Mrs Ripp?”
“Isn’t that against the rule?”
“Won’t you be a bad teacher if we fail all the time?”
I shrugged it off that day; clearly they had missed the point. Failure wasn’t about me being a bad teacher, if my students failed then it would mean I was doing great things, teaching them great resilience, getting them ready for “real life.”
Yet, the thought kept nagging me late at night when teachers tend to get nagged by thoughts like these. Did I really want my students to fail? Did I really want them to be surrounded by failure so they could develop more grit?
We forget that as adults we would never stick with something if we were constantly failing. That we have to have small successes along the way to keep us going. That some days we need it to be easy so that we can get ready for the next big challenge. We need to be aware of our own fears and we have to work through them. We are not fearless, so why do we expect our students to be?
I realized then that constant failure is not what I want. Nor is fearless students that barge ahead, with little thought, because they have to conquer their fear. I don’t want my students to be surrounded by failure. I do not want them to be fearless in every decision, nor do I want them to constantly have be resilient. That is not “real life.” That is not what we are as adults.
Instead, I want students who will face their own fears and still do it. Students that see their fear of failure and still try. I want students who acknowledge that they are moving into territory that makes them uncomfortable and still stick with it. And I want kids who know where their boundaries are. Who understand their own limits, their own comfort zones. Not so we can burst through the barricades, but instead so we can inch out of it, day by day, expanding ourselves, growing and feeling comfortable with the way we grow.
Failure will always be a constant companion in our classrooms, but they shouldn’t be the driving force. Opportunities should be, challenges should be, with the possibility of failure. We shouldn’t be striving for students who are unafraid to fail, but rather students who are willing to try. Willing to think. Willing to still do something even though they are afraid. That’s “real life.” That’s what we should be modeling.